Just outside of Hartford proper, Jewish families have intermingled with new immigrants over the years to form an unusually cohesive community in the suburbs of Greater Hartford. "Most [Jewish] communities are synagogue-centered, but here there is an incredibly integrated community connected with a variety of affiliations and associations," says Howard Sovronsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. Rabbi Jim Rosen of the Conservative Beth El Temple adds, "One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Hartford Jewish community is the unusual level of cooperation and respect across denominational lines."
This spirit of inclusivity contrasts sharply with the early days of Connecticut's capital. Small numbers of Jews began to settle in Hartford in the early 1800s, and soon local newspaper ads began to tout shops in a section of the commercial district called "Jew Street." The first group of some 200 immigrants, mostly from Germany and Austria, lived in downtown areas near the Connecticut River docks, working as meat cutters, jewelers, tailors, traders and teachers. Jews could hold public office at the time, but were not permitted to establish a formal congregation. They worshipped in private homes until they petitioned for a change in the law in 1843, paving the way for Congregation Beth Israel. Newcomers swelled their ranks and by 1856 congregants had purchased their first building, using funds donated by philanthropist Judah Touro. In 1876, a new building on Charter Oak Avenue became the first structure in Connecticut built specifically as a synagogue. In 1887, Eastern European Jews--mostly from Romania--formed an Orthodox synagogue, Agudas Achim.
At the time, Jews numbered just 1,500 of the city's population of 50,000. That number grew to 6,500 by 1910 and 20,000 ten years later, as Jews escaping from Russia and Eastern Europe were welcomed to the city. The Jewish community expanded with new synagogues, mutual aid societies, cultural and Zionist groups, eventually boasting more than 40 social and civic organizations. In 1923, the opening of Mt. Sinai Hospital allowed Jewish doctors to practice after being denied posts at the local Protestant and Catholic hospitals. The Jewish exodus to the suburbs from the North End neighborhood of Hartford, where most local Jews lived in the early part of the 20th century, started in the 1930s but grew in...